The future of gaming is … what?

So, if we look at the standard rhetoric around those who are either criticizing gaming or promoting diversity within it — depending on your view — one of the most common themes — which was pretty much the entirety of Leigh Alexander’s commentary — is that the traditional form of gaming is over and done with (and good riddance), and that those who argue against them are just people who are stuck in the old way of viewing gaming and are afraid of this brave new future of gaming that we’re entering. The problem that I’ve always had with these comments is that they’re often very, very light on what that future is actually supposed to be. What will games look like under their vision? What are games turning into? If I, as a Not-So-Casual Gamer, am to look to this future and decide if that’s the sort of gaming world I want to be in, it seems that I really need to know what that future is. And right now, I don’t.

Let me try to tease out some ideas of what it might be and examine them. Since the big push is on diversity, let’s start there. But not with diversity of characters (yet), but with diversity of games. One of the themes has been about getting more games beyond the standard FPS or whatever, and appealing to games like Depression Quest, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please and so on as examples of games that we need more of. So, let’s start from the claim that the future of gaming will give room for games like this to be made and to shine. If that’s the case, my immediate reply is … welcome to the future! All of those games were made, and got attention from the mainstream gaming press (even I’ve heard of them, and know a lot about what they’re about). Sure, you generally won’t find them in your friendly neighbourhood video game store, or in Walmart, but digital distribution is cheaper anyway for these small market, small company games, and as it expands finding games like these on places like Steam will help them be accessible. Sure, they’ve received criticism for not being games or not being good games, but that sort of criticism is always going to exist (and I’ll get into why they may have a point a little later) but, hey, if you want gaming as a whole to be open to these games, you got it. And those who criticize the games only spread the word about those sorts of games, allowing people who might find that sort of game or gameplay appealing to find it by looking at what people complain about and saying “You know, that sounds cool to me”. So you’ve got it, and it’s only going to get better.

(Note: don’t bring up the harassment. The harassment, in my view, is associated more with feminism/social justice than with the games themselves).

But maybe that isn’t what the future is supposed to be. Maybe the future is supposed to be a world where these sorts of games are dominant, or at least are on par in the market with simple entertainment-oriented games. This would be more an argument that games should be art instead of that you can indeed have games that are art. The problem is that this is almost certainly never going to be the case, since games are pretty much primarily an entertainment medium, like movies, books, television, etc. So while I do think that you will find — and are already finding — solely or predominantly artistic games, at the end of the day these sorts of games won’t be dominant. Why? Because they aren’t actually a lot of fun to play, just like artistic movies aren’t a lot of fun to watch. And, in general, things that try to make a point aren’t maximally entertaining, because they always put making their point ahead of being entertaining. This doesn’t mean that they have to be dull or boring or anything, or that entertainment can’t make a point, but it’s all about focus: if you have to choose between getting your point across clearly and making your point in an entertaining way, if you are trying to make a point you’ll choose, generally, “Make the point clearly” and if you’re trying to entertain you’ll choose “Be entertaining”. Trying to do both, as Miles O’Brien’s mother said about eating and talking, means that you won’t do either one as well as you could have. And the mainstream of gaming has always been about entertainment, just as the mainstream of movies has been. Artistic games are always going to be a side genre in games: valuable, but not something that the average game player is going to seek out.

Now, a counter here would be that if we look at movies, at least people say that artistic movies are still movies. For some of the more avant-garde or experimental ones, that isn’t true. But that sort of criticism has to be expected. After all, there are major philosophical debates over what makes art art, and over whether certain forms of art really count. We’ve just started considering whether games themselves are or can even be art, even in the same way as movies and books and … well, you get the idea. There’s no real criteria for what makes a game a game, and debates over the matter tend to get bogged down in definitions that leave out many things that everyone thinks of as games. Perhaps we need a Philosophy of Video Games to dig down into this and figure it all out, or at least put the discussions on solid academic ground. Or perhaps not. But we need to work this out, and insisting that, at the end of the day, the future will fit your view is at best premature. Maybe we’ll discover that video games can’t be art, for some reason. Maybe all games will be art, even the shooter that has nothing more than that. Who knows?

At any rate, these visions of the future are rather blurred and hazy (kinda like what I see when I take off my glasses). Do we have specifics of the sorts of games that people want to see more of? Well, let me look at Anita Sarkeesian, because she has a couple, although how much she wants these to be the way games are done and how much of these are games she just would like to see once in a while is debatable. From Damsels in Distress Part 3:

A true subversion of the trope would need to star the damsel as the main playable character. It would have to be her story. Sadly, there are very few games that really explore this idea. So as a way to illustrate how a deconstruction could work let’s try a thought experiment to see if we can create a hypothetical game concept of our own.

Clip- The Legend of the Last Princess- Mini Animation

“Like many fairy tales, this story begins once upon a time with the kidnapping of a princes. She dutifully waits for a handsome hero to arrive and rescue her. Eventually, however, she grows tired of the damseling and decides it’s high time to save herself. Of course if she’s going to be the protagonist of this particular adventure she’s going to need to acquire a slightly more practical outfit. After her daring escape, she navigates the forbidden forest, leveling up her skills along the way. Upon reaching her kingdom, she discovers the inevitable yet unexpected plot twist; the royal counsel has usurped power and were responsible for her kidnapping. Branded a traitor and an outlaw in her own land, she unlocks new disguises and stealth abilities to infiltrate the city walls. She makes her way through the final castle to confront the villainous council, and abolish the monarchy forever.”

A story idea like this one would work to actively subvert traditional narrative expectations. The princess is placed in a perilous situation but instead of being made into the goal for a male protagonist, she uses her intelligence, creativity, wit and strength to engineer her own escape and then become the star of her own adventure.

Now, immediately thereafter Sarkeesian says that not all games have to start this kind of hyper individualistic woman … but she never says whether she wants this to be common or not. And I’d say that this kind of game might be interesting, and would be worth pursuing … but would always be a minority of games. The reason is that the “start imprisoned and escape to start the plot” sort of game is one that is somewhat limited in what you can do; there are only so many ways you can allow the protagonist to escape without making the villains look stupid. Starting the protagonist out in the world allows for far more options, so in general you’d pull this idea out when it really adds to the story you’re telling, and it’s been done well in a number of cases (see, for example, Baldur’s Gate 2). The specifics that would apply to a female protagonist and those subversions would wear out really, really quickly; they only work when it’s unexpected, but if it became the norm that, say, a female protagonist changes into a more practical outfit it’d be reduced to being like donning armour, which would lessen its effect. So, do I think that the future of gaming will have room for games like this? Yes. Do I think they’ll be common? No.

Let’s move on to the next one, from Women as Background Decoration Part 2:

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

But the game stories we’ve been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.

The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitise violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.

Now, to be clear, I’m certainly not saying stories seriously examining the issues surrounding domestic or sexual violence are off limits for interactive media – however if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach the topic with the subtlety, gravity and respect that the subject deserves.

She then goes on to talk about “Papo and Yo”:

Though not about the abuse of women, the 2012 indie title Papo & Yo is an example of a game that respectfully deals with the very serious issue of alcoholism and domestic violence against children.

The game does so by telling its story from the point of view of a protagonist directly affected by the trauma of abuse, not someone on the outside coming to their rescue. It focuses on the journey of a figure who is struggling through a traumatic situation and attempting to deal with the repercussions of violence. It makes that struggle to cope and survive central to both the narrative and gameplay – not peripheral set dressing to a story about something else. And critically, the game employs powerful metaphoric imagery to make its point instead of relying solely on sensationalized or exploitative depictions of the abuse itself.

Papo & Yo is an intense and at times gut-wrenching game that doesn’t sugarcoat or glamorize violence. In this way it’s an honest and emotionally resonant experience for players.

The key here is that Sarkeesian seems to be pushing games as a sort of commentary or critique or expression of values. In fact, she says that in the next paragraph:

We must remember that games don’t just entertain. Intentional or not, they always express a set of values, and present us with concepts of normalcy.

Taken with the first paragraph, her view of games seems to be that they don’t just or ought not just reflect, reproduce or represent societies and societal attitudes. They must advocate for values — and, presumably, proper values — and critique the existing societal structure and attitudes. And my reply to that is that games can do that, but that they don’t have to do that. Games can try to reflect the common societal views in an uncritical way, as nothing more than a framing device for people to simply have some fun and maybe even pick up some interesting perspectives on things, not as a challenge to the dominant views, but as a supplment to them. A bit like talking to someone from a completely different part of the world; you learn about their culture and how it works without it feeling like a challenge to your culture or trying to challenge theirs.

So, again, there’s room for these sorts of games, but that doesn’t mean that they ought to become the norm … and they probably won’t. Because after a hard day at work when I want to play something just to have some fun, the last thing I want is for the game to be constantly trying to challenge my view of the world, whether I agree with it or not.

Finally, let’s look at diversity in games. How is that future going to look? Well, I don’t really know. Game culture itself has already started looking at and talking about these things, and things have changed. I don’t feel that the sort of diversity pushed by most diversity advocates is going to be successful, because in its intense focus on the negative it simply encourages tokenism, rather than putting diversity in where it makes sense and telling stories where that diversity is a required element, and where that story can’t really be told any other way. While I criticized the criticism of Assassin’s Creed: Unity for not allowing people to play as a female avatar, I did agree with and appreciated the commentaries that pointed out that in that time period they had an amazing opportunity that they squandered by not going with a female protagonist. In order to get that sort of diversity, more of that sort of thing has to be done, where you point out opportunities and let game designers hit their heads and exclaim “I could have had a V8!”.

But I don’t want to go any further on that for now, because this would be getting into my view on how the future of games should go and that’s not what this post is about. And I don’t think I really have an answer to what this future that’s inevitably coming is supposed to be yet. Maybe those who are pushing for this could take some time out of ranting about gamers to outline this. At the end of the day, the response from most gamers might well be “Oh, that’s what we want, too”.

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7 Responses to “The future of gaming is … what?”

  1. Crude Says:

    It’s a bit more pat than your answer, but I think a sizable and essential push from the ‘we must change games’ crowd amounts to the following:

    * Games, especially popular games, should be propaganda tools.
    * There should be a system in place which makes sure that games which deviate from this, or worse, promote a different set of values, are punished.
    * People who disagree with the above should be regarded with hostility.

    The key is this: We must remember that games don’t just entertain. Intentional or not, they always express a set of values, and present us with concepts of normalcy.

    And those values, those concepts of normalcy, must align with the desired narrative.

    Show me one incident where Sarkeesian praises a game that expresses values she rejects, or challenges her concept of normalcy, explicitly for doing exactly that.

    I don’t think such exists. And if it doesn’t, wouldn’t that indicate that ‘diversity’ is the last thing they want?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think this is best subsumed under my claim that they think or want games to express values, when you add to that the common attitude that they have the right values. So people who disagree with the values they want to espouse or advocate for expressing other values are demanding that “bad” values be expressed, which is horrific. Add to that the idea that these things impact the values of society — and don’t merely reflect them — and those who argue against them are doing things that are actually harmful … and how can anyone support that?

      Of course, the fact that they may not know what the “right” values are is something that they don’t consider …

      I don’t want to claim any kind of conscious “We want to punish people who don’t agree with us” attitude; I think it follows best from a genuine desire to make things better, not realizing that they are trying to impose their view of the world on others … which is the thing that annoys them the most about others.

      So do they really support diversity of views or opinions? No. But they are trying to support diverse depictions … as long as they meet their standards for values. Which ends up with the ironic contradiction that most of them don’t see.

  2. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Dude, “The Stanley Parable” is hilarious. It wears out its welcome after a bit, but then what game doesn’t? Very few have infinite playability, and the ones that do tend to have little story. TSP is all ABOUT stories in games and how they work.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’ve never played the game, although I’ve heard of it, and from what I’ve heard it seems like the charm of the game IS that commentary, which is the distinction I was making. I can compare it to a game like Sith Lords that does have a lot of commentary on video game tropes, but someone who was only a casual gamer and who didn’t know anything about those tropes could still have a lot of fun playing that game (or not, depending on your view of the game [grin]), which I don’t think is the case for TSP. Another comparison can be made with Persona 4, which has a lot of discussions of serious social issues … but the player can treat them as a problem for those characters and if they don’t gain insight into those issues it’s still a very good game, which might not be the case for, say, the games Sarkeesian promotes.

      So I’m not saying that “point” games won’t exist, or that “point” games would be bad games, or even that they won’t be fun. It’s just that they won’t be the mainstream because they don’t put fun first, and the mainstream will take games as fun first. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

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